The vaquita will become extinct within five years if illegal fishing of the species does not come to an end. A new report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), said there are only 60 vaquitas in the Gulf of California.

Populations of the rare marine mammal have decreased more than 92 percent since 1997. Details of the report were presented this week to Mexico’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources and the governor of Baja California.

The vaquita will become extinct within five years if illegal fishing of the species does not come to an end. Photo credit: Inhabitat
The vaquita will become extinct within five years if illegal fishing of the species does not come to an end. Photo credit: Inhabitat

A 2015 survey showed a “catastrophic” decline of vaquitas. The revival of illegal gillnetting for an endangered fish, called the totoaba, is causing the accidental drowning of the small porpoise, which gets caught in gillnets. There were an estimated 567 vaquitas in 1997.

The totoaba or totuava, a fish that can grow up to two meters in length and 220 pounds in weight, is classified as a “critically endangered” specie by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  Swim bladders from these fish are highly valued in the Chinese black market.

The Environmental Investigation Agency said last early 2016, that swim bladders of totoabas are acquired as collection items. They can be found in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and online stores from $2,800 to nearly $9,000.

Gillnet fishing in Mexico must stop in order to safeguard the only remaining  60 vaquitas

By 2008, researchers calculated there were 250 vaquitas in the world. However, numbers continue to decrease, as illegal fishing extends. As a consequence, it is now one of the most endangered mammals in our planet, said the Cetacean Specialist Group (IUCN-SSC), in a press release issued Saturday.

Measures against gillnet fishing must be enforced, in order to save the vaquita, said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of CIRVA and co-chief scientist of the survey. The Mexican government has already taken actions, which have been “praised” by the committee.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes. Our latest survey confirms the catastrophic decline before the emergency gill net ban. This gillnet ban and strong enforcement must continue if we are to have any hope of saving the vaquita,” said Rojas-Bracho.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto imposed two years ago an emergency ban on gillnets, in the Gulf of California. The same area is now protected by the Mexican Navy. Local fisheries are receiving government funds, as a form of compensation for lost income, said the IUCN-SSC.

CIRVA said that measures taken by the government must continue, in order to help vaquitas to survive and recover. Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources Rafael Pacchiano said that authorities are committed to prevent illegal fishing.

Surveillance operations have been impulsed, specially at night, said Pacchiano. However, researchers found three dead vaquitas in March. All of them died as a consequence of gillnets. Just during the last four months, authorities have removed 42 illegal nets.

“Surveillance operations were intensified, especially at night, by incorporating equipment and personnel from the Agency of Environmental Protection, the Navy of Mexico, the Federal Police and the Department of Fisheries, allowing greater land and maritime surveillance during the curvina fishing season,” Secretary Pacchiano said.

Source: Cetacean Specialist Group Press Release